$12 million settlement approved in 2007 Malibu Canyon fire

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The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved a $12 million settlement with three cellphone companies for allegedly overloading power lines in Malibu Canyon that led to the 2007 Canyon fire. Roughly half of the settlement will go toward installing stronger wooden telephone poles in Malibu Canyon and a second safety project.

The fire, which began when at a power pole snapped and sparked surrounding brush, destroyed 14 buildings and shut down central Malibu for almost three days. Investigators for the PUC allege that the pole was dangerously and illegally overloaded with telecommunications equipment, and that the pole’s owner, Southern California Edison, and four cellphone companies who paid Edison to carry their equipment later misled to investigators after the fire.

The three cellphone companies, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, agreed at a meeting Thursday in San Francisco to pay the state $4 million each in a settlement, while still denying the allegations.

Southern California Edison and another cellphone company, NextG, still face a trial and $74 million in fines proposed by state investigators for their role in the fire.

Roughly half of the settlement payment will be paid to the State of California. The other half is expected to be spent on replacing existing wooden power poles along the 3.4 miles of lower Malibu Canyon. Another portion will be spent on an independent safety survey to study a representative sample of Southern California Edison power poles across its 50,000-square-mile service area. The intent of the study, according to the settlement is to determine the severity of the problem with pole-overloading, which was blamed for a power outage in the San Gabriel Valley in fall 2011 when a windstorm blew over more than 200 Edison power poles.